Killing the dream

ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Tax cuts, privatization, sleaze, and the demise of California
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tredmond@sfbg.com

When the first issue of the Bay Guardian hit the stands in 1966, it was still really possible to talk about the California dream. The state had seemingly limitless potential and was in many way a model for the nation — a free public university system that was the envy of the world, an economy that provided jobs to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, the beginnings of what would be the nation's premier environmental movement pushing to save San Francisco Bay, save the coast, save Lake Tahoe ... and the Free Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, the United Farm Workers Union, and so much more that was transforming politics and culture in the United States from the West Coast.

Twelve years later, it was all falling apart. Eight years of Gov. Ronald Reagan and then the passage of Proposition 13 launched a very different kind of movement out of the West, a movement that sought to dismantle the public sector and the social safety net, to treat government as the enemy, and to use culture wars to convince working-class Americans to vote against their own economic interests.

And now California is being described as the nation's first failed state. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — the second Republican actor to hold that role — has driven the state to the brink of bankruptcy. The University of California is drowning in red ink, raising fees and turning away students. The state's water system is a mess; cities and counties are in fiscal collapse; the economy's in the tank; and nobody seriously talks about a California dream anymore.

The story of how that happened — and how the diseases of tax-revolts, privatization, government corruption, and public disempowerment spread east from California — is the focus of this 43rd anniversary issue. It's both enlightening and a bit scary to read through old issues, because in hundreds of stories over the past four decades, the Guardian has warned of exactly what was to come.

The very first issue of the Bay Guardian talked about the "historic election" pitting the incumbent, Democrat Pat Brown, against Reagan. A lot of people in the emerging "new left" were arguing that there wasn't a bit of difference between the two, and that you might as well sit out the election. But the Guardian had a different take. The election was really about the direction California wanted to go, the paper said, a choice between a state that cares about the public sector and social welfare and a state where those things don't matter.

"Reagan's stands typify the temper of the cause," the Nov. 7, 1966 editorial stated. "He is on record, at various times, in opposition to the progressive income tax, Social Security, Medicare, the anti-poverty program, farm subsidies, the TVA, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, public housing, federal aid to education, and veterans hospitalization for anything other than service-connected disabilities. How can a man or a movement govern the state of California with such a political philosophy?"

Reagan's election may have seemed like a fluke, but it was nothing of the sort. By the mid 1960s, with the counterculture — and equally important, the economic left — looking to make major inroads in American policy, the broad outlines of a right-wing attack plan were in place.

That's something the Guardian always recognized — that powerful people who moved the levers of government typically did so with a long-term plan.

In San Francisco, part of that plan was the transformation of a human-scale city to a West Coast version of Manhattan. The idea: tear up South of Market (then mostly low-income housing) for a shiny new convention center and hotels. Dump dozens of big high-rise office buildings downtown. Construct a fixed-rail system to carry suburban commuters into the dense downtown.